One of Shelter Island’s most notable and honored athletes stopped by the Islander one morning last week for coffee, a blueberry muffin and some conversation.
In training for the Boston Marathon scheduled for Oct. 11, Bill Lehr, 63, had completed his mileage for the day. He usually tries to get in 12 to 16 miles a day, and likes to train on the Island, with its hills to build stamina. He’s also found a track in Nassau County, where he has a second home with his wife Sui Zee and their son Will. “It’s a bike path between Captree and Jones Beach that’s about 13 miles,” he said.
A fixture at almost every Shelter Island 10K since its inception, a participant in two Olympics, Bill said this year will be the first time he’ll be back to Boston since 1986. He’s looking forward to the 125th anniversary of the world-renowned race, a return to the Boston streets since the pandemic shut it down — except for virtual racing — for two years.
“The weather should be better,” Bill said. “Last time I was there it was in April — cold, windy and raining. Not good.”
And this year his equipment will also be better. “The wheelchairs then were dinosaurs, heavy with four wheels,” he said. “Now we have lighter, three-wheel racers with one wheel out front.”
An athlete since his boyhood, racing, playing basketball and tennis, his first organized wheelchair race was as a teenager in 1977 in Falmouth, Mass. “I saw a photo in the paper of Bob Hall, a wheelchair racer in the Boston Marathon,” Bill said. “He was an inspiration.”
He paused and asked his breakfast companion to stop taking notes for a moment. “And that’s the only time I’m going to use that word, O.K.?”
It’s difficult not to think of words like inspiring, or inspiration, when spending time with Bill or seeing him in action on race courses. But his idea of not describing his accomplishments as something rare or Herculean, speaks volumes about his character, and how he wants to be viewed, as a person in the community. “I’m just a guy,” he said. “A guy getting through, just like everybody else.”
A childhood of challenges
Born in Floral Park in Nassau County, his mother was a nurse and his father worked for the Long Island Press, not on the editorial side, but at the plant, “a union guy,” Bill said.
He broke a leg for the first time when he was six weeks old and was diagnosed with a term he dislikes, “brittle bone disease. The British call it glass bones, which for some reason I like better,” he said with a smile.
During his childhood he would have as many as eight to 10 fractures a year. And it wasn’t necessarily because of falls or accidents, just a slight movement could cause a broken bone.
Once in a full body cast, he was placed in a child’s wagon to go to school. In kindergarten in Floral Park, he experienced the first example of being singled out and discriminated against because of his disability. “A school board member didn’t want a disabled kid in the school,” Bill said, so he was tutored at home for about a year and half.
Enrolled in the Henry Viscardi School in the Nassau County town of Albertson, a state-supported school for children with disabilities, he found his passion for sports. “I made friends there who I’ve kept to this day,” he said.
But as just one marker of the arc his life and the lives of people with disabilities has taken in this country, a child now would be admitted to a regular elementary and high school, to learn and participate in school activities like every other student.
“I didn’t have a lot of choices for college,” he said. “There were then, and there are now, two barriers — architecture and attitude.”
He found a place at Farmingdale State College, which was wheelchair accessible.
So many places have basic infrastructure, such as the MTA, he said, that are built and maintained without any consideration of people with disabilities. Add an attitude of making those people virtually invisible — “Or projecting on to you what they think you can or can’t do” — doesn’t help to move society into an equitable place for all people.
He then went to work for the eastern chapter of Paralyzed Veterans of America, where he learned wheelchair repair and had an opportunity to express his passion for sports in basketball and racing. He found wheelchairs “so liberating, I mean just being able to get down the block, to be independent, but also were huge and heavy,” and no real aid in accessing many buildings, vehicles or other spaces.
He went to work for Hygeia, a retailer of medical supplies, working on ordering wheelchairs and helping clients customize them for their use. A call to visit someone who had ordered a wheelchair in the Bronx led to a visit to take an order. Sui (pronounced Sue) Zee, who had had polio, was in medical school. The two connected immediately. From Hong Kong originally, Ms. Zee did her residency in Seattle and when she returned to work as a pathologist at Stony Brook University Medical Center, their love affair continued. They were married 17 years ago.
“She’s the one you should talk to,” Bill said. “There’s a whole book about her.”
Their son, Will, is now a senior at Ward Melville High School.
Making an Island home
“I’d never heard of Shelter Island,” Bill said. But when he got off the ferry as a 10-year-old to attend a Floral Park Methodist Church-sponsored summer camp at Quinipet, he was enchanted.
He came back in the early 1980s to race in the 10K, and has high praise for Cliff Clark, who was the race director in those days. “Cliff is so supportive, he made a real difference,” Bill said. “Cliff didn’t have the attitude that, ‘Oh, this guy is taking some spot from a runner.’ He knew that I was just out there challenging myself and the course like everyone else.”
Moving to Shelter Island started “with a real New York experience,” Bill remembered. “We were living in Manhattan and one Sunday Sui and I are having coffee and bagels and reading the New York Times.” In the real estate section they saw a listing for a ranch house on Shelter Island. “We looked at each other and decided to check it out,” Bill said.
Finding that the ranch could be made wheelchair accessible without too much trouble, they decided to buy. “It was affordable, or, more importantly, the bank decided it was affordable,” Bill said, smiling. “And we thought it would be a good thing to have a mortgage. And an even better thing when we paid it off.”
Will was enrolled in Shelter Island School in kindergarten and first grade, but the commute for Sui to Stony Brook was getting more and more wearing, so they bought a second home nearer the hospital.
“We’re here as often as we can,” Bill said, noting that Will sails with the Menantic Yacht Club and loves being out on the water. He’s also following in his father’s footsteps, exploring different sports. “He’s really into fencing, on the high school team,” his proud father said.
Soon the search for colleges will begin, and they’ll focus partly on schools with fencing programs.
Seeing the world
A world traveler, Bill participated in the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul. It was his second Olympics, having competed in 1984 in Los Angeles. The Seoul games were a favorite, though, since the para-Olympics were on the same scale as the regular games. “We were at the opening and closing ceremonies and had the same crowds,” he remembered.
He’s spent significant time in Western Europe, especially enjoying the Netherlands and Ireland, where he has friends.
His life has tracked the ongoing progress — sometimes frustratingly slow — of equality for people with disabilities. America has a long way to go, Bill said, especially compared to European nations. And his former hometown of New York lags behind other cities. “More often than not, if you go to a building, the guy at the door will tell you, ‘Go around the back and I’ll buzz you in,’” he said, shaking his head.
Public transportation is a trial to get through. But he had good words for Philadelphia. He has a goal to go to every Major League Baseball stadium. He and Will checked the Philadelphia box recently, attending a game at Citizens Bank Park. “Philly was good,” he said. “Good access, easy to get around.”
The Island is wheelchair friendly, he said, with the Post Office and the Library especially good for mobility. People without a handicapped pass taking a parking spot here or elsewhere tends to frost him. “‘I’ll just be a minute,’ they say. It’s never just a minute. And some people say, ‘Oh, I wish I had a pass like yours. Sure. I’ll trade you mine for your legs, O.K?” he said with a smile.
When it comes to health insurance, especially Medicare, Bill is an unsatisfied customer. “No one has told Medicare that it’s in the business of rehabilitation and independent living,” he said. “In western Europe, it’s not a luxury to have an adapted automobile with hand controls and a lift, or a kitchen to cook meals for your family with less chances to burn or injure yourself.”
Speaking of Europe, he was reminded of some tennis matches he had in the Dutch city of Utrecht. “The rules are exactly the same, except the wheelchair player has the option of letting the ball take two bounces,” he said. “You and I could play.”